Friday, 18 November 2016

Reflections on failure

It has become a truism of at least some parts of the research literature on leadership that to focus on successful leaders is to neglect the importance of the other side of leadership, namely followership (see Uhl-Bien et al, 2014 for a summary). Less discussed, so far as I know, is the other side of success, namely failure.

This thought was prompted by the US Presidential election result, where much attention has focussed on Trump’s success but less on Clinton’s failure. What does it feel like to fail, especially when coming so close to success? A clue may be in Hillary Clinton’s exhausted-looking appearance since the election and her statement that since her defeat that there have been times when “she never wanted to leave the house again”.

It is generally the case that when leaders – whether in politics or business – fail they disappear from public view. They don’t want to be seen and we, apparently, do not wish to see them (perhaps especially if we were their followers, as if their shame has become ours). And whatever prior success they may have had, their names become forever associated with, and their lives defined by, the failure with which their careers ended.

I suppose there are some exceptions to this. Leadership theory seems always sooner or later (usually sooner) to mention Churchill, and he is an example of someone who came back from failure and isolation to lead wartime Britain. Or, to take another stock icon, this time from business, Steve Jobs having been forced out of Apple in 1985 came back in 1997 to successfully lead the company again. But such cases are rare, I think. In general, once they’re gone, they’re gone.

The stigma of failure is profound. There are many books about successful leaders, very few about those who fail even though these might yield more valuable insights. Or, if the maxim that “all political careers end in failure” is true then perhaps success and failure are not the opposites that one might suppose. But the issue is wider than that of leaders. In the US Presidential election (as with Brexit) much was made of how the result reflected the vote of those who had lost out from and been left behind by globalization. I’ve written elsewhere about my scepticism of this explanation, but acknowledged that it is partially true. And to the extent that it is true, it must partly be to do with the anger induced by failure.

For to have ‘lost out’ and ‘been left behind’ is surely a deeply hurtful experience. In the US, where the ideology that anyone can be a success ('from the log cabin to the White House') is especially strong, being a loser is galling. In a more general way, the idea that was at the core of the western liberal post-war settlement that if you ‘worked hard and did the right thing’ security and success were available makes it humiliating if you have done these things and yet find yourself a failure. All of this becomes even more humiliating if, every hour of the day, you see media images of the rich and successful, and adverts for a lifestyle that you can never have.

Of course there is no automatic association between failure and humiliation. But when winners take all, and are lauded as they do so, and failure is absolute and stigmatic it is very likely also to be humiliating. Humiliation is a complex and powerful emotion, which may provoke hatred of oneself and/or of others, anger and violence in both inter-personal (Walker & Knauer, 2011) and political (Fattah & Fierke, 2009) relations. One way it may be assuaged is, indeed, a matter of leadership. As Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If had it, both triumph and disaster are imposters. The etymological twin of humiliation is humility. Perhaps if the successful exhibited more humility, failure would be less humiliating?


Fattah, K., & Fierke, K. M. (2009), ‘A clash of emotions: The politics of humiliation and political violence in the Middle East’, European Journal of International Relations, 15, 1: 67-93.
Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014), ‘Followership theory: A review and research agenda’, The Leadership Quarterly 25, 1: 83-104.
Walker, J., & Knauer, V. (2011), ‘Humiliation, self-esteem and violence’, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22, 5: 724-741.

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